Satoru Tai, Nissan’s Executive Design Director, has penned some of the most iconic and distinctive car designs on the road.
Whether it’s the indomitable MICRA, the futuristic QASHQAI, the iconic CUBE or Nissan’s world-beating electric vehicle, the Nissan LEAF, Satoru-Tai’s design DNA shines through.
His passion for driving, encyclopedic knowledge of automotive manufacture, and sensitivity to the changing role of the car in the 21st Century all work to create designs that combine the classical, experimental and pragmatic. It’s what makes him one of the most famous car designers in the world.
We met Satoru Tai to talk about one of the most important redesigns in Nissan’s history, namely the new incarnation of the Nissan LEAF, which comes seven years after the car’s original launch.
In those seven years, it’s gone on to become the most successful electric vehicle in the world, what you might call ‘the people’s EV’. Satoru Tai is the man behind the new design, and for him the Nissan LEAF has given him an opportunity to rewrite the rulebook. “The car is much freer in terms of design,” he says, “with more innovative, challenging styling.”
Satoru Tai has wanted to be a car designer nearly all his life, but can he remember the moment when he first saw it as a potential future for him? “No, not exactly,” he says. “But I love cars from childhood and I was thinking, ‘someone, somewhere is designing these things, so why couldn’t I?’”
Certainly by the time he graduated from university, Satoru Tai was entirely focussed on becoming a car designer. He joined Nissan, working first as a designer of interiors, then exteriors, an apprenticeship that eventually led to him overseeing entire design projects, able to stamp his vision on the Nissan brand.
“It’s been about 35 years at the company, so a long, long history. Back then I was a real car guy, buying sports cars, modifying them and driving them very fast.”
That boy-racer passion can be seen in stunning designs like the Z32 Fairlady Z and the R35 GT-R, and it’s still clearly visible in the new Nissan LEAF, which is a more muscular design than its predecessor.
“With the original Nissan LEAF the keywords might have been ‘stylish’ and ‘modern’. Now they’re ‘sleeker’ and ‘quiet but dynamic’. I think it’s a more balanced car. We did a lot of work on the aerodynamics but there’s a harmony between the elements,” he enthuses.
There are also design touches that mark it out as an EV. Satoru Tai points to the blue grille. “This symbolises the car in some way,” he says. “An EV doesn’t need a big mouth to inhale air, so the grille acts as a kind of symbol, both of Nissan and the EV.”
In 2010, the Nissan LEAF was a game-changer for EVs. But a lot can happen in seven years, and it now finds itself with more competition on the roads.
“This impacts on own brand,” says Satoru Tai. “One of our rival’s styling is very aggressive, very futuristic, for example. Another keeps a very familiar shape. All these things influence us, of course. The Nissan LEAF is a very advanced design but at the same time more democratic.”
“There are huge changes happening, and lots of companies are trying different hypotheses with EVs,” continues Satoru Tai. “Obviously with the new Nissan LEAF we have made improvements to things like the battery, but with the original and this one we were also thinking about the future, about automatic driving, AI, that sort of thing. It’s a very exciting period, things can go in many different ways.”
For designers, EVs present new challenges and opportunities. “We can basically put the battery anywhere, and the electric motor is small enough to lay out the fundamentals of the car differently,” says Satoru Tai. But looking further into the future, it’s the convergence between the EV revolution and the self-driving revolution that will lead to radical change.
“I strongly think that from now on the interior of cars will become more and more important,” he says. “Think about how TVs used to be a huge box but now they’re getting thinner and thinner. I think the same kind of thing will happen with EVs. Up to now we’ve needed space for many mechanical things, but in the future we will be able to maximise the size of the vehicle.”
What self-driving means is that the interior will become more about the experience of the space itself. Essentially, your car becomes another room, another place where you work and play. Satoru Tai has an interesting comparison here, namely the live concert. “It’s a bit old perhaps, but I remember seeing Roger Waters’ The Wall concert film. Watching it I was shocked by the combination of music, stage, lights – the whole spectacle. If you can somehow translate that kind of total experience into the car concept.”
As for the here and now, Satoru Tai’s new Nissan LEAF design looks set to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, subtly changing our perception of EVs and their potential. For the man who sometimes thinks of car design in terms of stadium rock, this one looks set to be another smash hit.